This is when those giants the Tupapa Panthers will meet Avatiu Nikao Eels in the fierce derby battle for a place in the domestic rugby league grand final, which will be played on June 2.
Panthers and Eels, coached by brothers Darren and Terry Piri respectively, fought tooth and nail right to the end of the preliminary rounds of the weekly league.
Panthers survived with a slender one-point lead, landing on top of the table with 20 points, ahead of the Eels’ 19, to win the minor premiership title.
But the major premiership title matters the most and today’s tussle will provide both teams with an opportunity to put one hand on the holy grail of Cook Islands rugby league competition.
The Panthers with nine wins, two draws and a loss scored a total of 416 points and conceded 186, while the Eels managed to put forward 424 points while conceding 186 this season.
The two teams met twice this season with the first match ending in a draw and a second one in favour of the Panthers.
“Performance-wise, judging from the points scored and conceded by both teams, they are pretty much equal,” Cook Islands Rugby League Association competition coordinator Taua Benioni said.
“The team that wins will get a direct entry into the final and will have about two weeks to prepare and recover. This should make the battle more interesting.”
Both teams have formidable squads with solid forward packs and free-running backline players, but the Panthers will have a slight upper hand in terms of size and experience.
For Panthers in the forwards, former NRL player Sam Mataora will lead the charge, aided by the likes of Rangi Piri, Eric Newbigging and utility Thomas Toa.
Prop Mataora has been in devastating form, providing the experience and the extra power that the Panthers forwards need to rattle their opposition. He has also proven vital in training sessions, guiding his fellow team members through the drills.
Piri, who has reportedly returned after a short stint overseas, provides the height in the pack, and Newbigging, who has been in the New Zealand Warriors development programme, brings professionalism to the side.
Warhorse Toa, who is a dual international, adds to the pack’s depth.
For the Eels, their forwards will rely on the young guns of Tama Nicholas and Toru Katu, who have both climbed the ranks to prove worthy of playing in the premier competition.
The duo has shown glimpses of some exciting league this season but may lack the experience to stand strong in the crucial round of the competition.
Veteran Clive Nicholas and Logan Perenisi will provide that boost in experience and skills.
Samoan warrior Perenisi is a beast on the field and on his best day can put the fear of God into the opposing players.
In the backline, the Panthers have the likes of Jovilisi Naqitawa, Eddie Nicholas, Joe Vetaukula, Jamain Iroa and skipper Teina Savage.
Their combination this season has proven “too hot to handle” for many teams.
Fijians Naqitawa and Vetaukula with their power and speed can be deadly with ball in hand, while Nicholas’ perfect execution has caused nightmares to opposing defenders.
Iroa provides added thrust with his boots and the Panthers will rely heavily on their stand-off to put them through to the final.
The Eels have an equally impressive lineup in their backline, thanks to the likes of Tyson Iorangi, Tua Ravula, Lai Rogorogoivalu and Tevita Niusama.
It is not confirmed yet if their leading try scorer Samu Alafua, who was sidelined due to injury in Eels’ last two matches, will be available for today’s match.
Their backline do well in setting up the attack but need a finisher to execute their moves. Alafua has been vital in providing that link and his (possible) absence will be a big drawback for the Eels.
Eels are also expected to field Australia-based Teniko Tunupopo, who plays for the East Hills Bulldogs club in New South Wales.
Darren’s coaching style has worked well for him this season, and with the powerful pack he is able to execute his game plans to perfection.
He also uses the determination and positive attitude of the players to his advantage to bring out the best from them on game day.
For the Eels, Terry, who has been one of the understudies of former coach Albert Nicholas, has done wonders for the team in his first season as the coach. But the discipline of some of his players – especially those not turning up to training – has let him down.
The match will kick off at 4.30pm.
- Rashneel Kumar